Jim Thome hits free agency this offseason, after playing out the last season of his 2003-2008 (with 2009 vesting in 2008) contract. Injuries in Philadelphia and his eventual inability to play the field are among the reasons the contract probably didn’t work out in the end for the teams involved, but Thome has been a very good hitter when he’s been healthy.
How can Thome be expected to hit in 2010? Over the last four seasons, Thome’s wOBAs have been .420, .410, .370, and .367. Regressing to the mean and accounting for age, I estimate his 2010 wOBA at about .365, or about 21 runs above average.
Other (better) projection systems are already coming out with their estimate. I haven’t seen a ZiPs‘ projection for Thome (sorry if I missed it, Dan), but the CHONE projection is much less optimistic about Thome’s 2010 abilities than mine, having him at +9 runs per 150 games, or about +10 per 700 PAs.
There are two other important considerations with Thome: (1) his age and health and (2) his inability to play first base on even a part-time basis. Thome will by 39 at the beginning of the 2010 season. Despite all of this, from 2006-2008 he played in 143, 130, and 149 games. Even in 2009, he played in 107 games for Chicago before getting traded to the Dodgers, where he could not DH. While we should still be cautious in playing time projections for a 39-year-old who can’t play 1B because of back problems, given that, when he’s DHed, he’s been able to play pretty much every day, an 80% playing time projection doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Being a full-time DH obviously hurts Thome’s value. Only teams in the AL (and possibly the Nationals) will be interested. While normally we assume that a full-time DH’s value above replacement is simply his runs created above average, given that Thome has shown he can DH the last few years, we can use the -17.5/700 positional adjustment rather than -22.5.
Splitting the difference between projections (this does not mean I think my projection is in the same league), we get the following: +15 hitting -17.5 position + 22.5 replacement level times 80% playing time = 1.6 WAR player. We’d currently expect a team to give a 1.6 WAR player about six or seven million dollars on a one-year deal.
Is Thome really worth that? After all, a guy like Eric Hinske, whom CHONE projects to be a +6 hitter, and can also play a decent 1B, perhaps an acceptable LF/RF, and even an emergency 3B, would seem to be worth just as much. As a full-time 1B, with average defense, you’d expect him to be worth about almost as much as Thome over a full season, and at a much lower cost.
For most teams, Hinske would be a better investment. However, if there is an AL team that just needs the DH hole filled and is contending, given that Thome has proven he can DH, he would be the better choice. Whether he’s worth the extra money and if suitors recognize that is another question altogether. The recent awards voting has hinted at a change among the writers; will the market for older DH-types like Thome and Hideki Matsui demonstrate one among the front offices? Last season seemed to indicate so; it will be interesting to see if the trend continues.